Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081
The Chanson de Roland tells of the decisive battle at Roncesvalles, Spain, between Charlemagne's Christian forces and the Saracens, or pagans, led by King Marsile of Saragossa. The knight Roland's bravery and his betrayal by his stepfather, Ganelon, are of central interest in the tale.
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As the Saracens and Franks encounter each other, differences in culture and religion come to the foreground. The French admire the Saracens for their prowess, the beauty of their armaments, and, at times, their valor. However, Charlemagne's sole purpose in life according to the epic is to defend the Christian religion. As such, all non-believers must be converted or destroyed. Since the Muslim Saracens control Spain, which was formerly Christian, Charlemagne's special mission is to drive the Muslims from Christian lands. The epic shows no real understanding of Islam by the medieval, presumably Christian, author of the text.
Duty and Responsibility
Charlemagne is the venerable lord of the French fighters. They must serve him, even if this means personal danger or hardship. Roland, eager to serve, tries to volunteer for every mission. When he is appointed to head the rear guard, he vows to protect Charlemagne from all harm. Thus, he refuses to blow the horn that will summon Charlemagne when the rear guard is attacked. Even the treacherous Ganelon accepts his duty to act as emissary to the Saracens when Charlemagne orders it, but because of the danger involved he harbors resentment against Roland, who encouraged his appointment. Ganelon tries to separate his duty to Charlemagne from his duty toward Charlemagne's men. He contends that he remained faithful to Charlemagne even while betraying Roland. Charlemagne and the knight Thierry, who fights on his behalf, believe that the duty owed to Charlemagne includes protection of his men. The fact that an angel of God helps Thierry to defeat the knight who fights for Ganelon suggests that God, too, agrees that Ganelon's duty was to Roland as a representative of Charlemagne.
Olivier and Roland present a model friendship of men brought together in battling a common enemy. They have fought together for many years, and Roland is engaged to marry Olivier's sister. Olivier does not hesitate to criticize Roland for not blowing the horn.
Good and Evil
The characters of the Chanson de Roland are aligned starkly on the side of either Good or Evil. Individual Saracens are acknowledged to possess qualities of bravery, wisdom, skill in battle, and even physical attractiveness—but for the epic's author, the fact that they are "pagan" and not Christian relegates them to damnation. Conversely, some Christian characters are shown to have faults. Most notably, Roland's excessive pride leads to an angry exchange with his best friend, the massacre of the rear guard, and his own death. But, as a Christian crusader, Roland is on the side of good, and at his death angels escort his soul to heaven. Marsile, when killed, is ushered away by demons. God intervenes several times in the French cause and to ensure that Ganelon is punished for betraying Roland. In the end, Good will always triumph over Evil.
Roland struggles with the issue of honor as he decides whether to blow the horn or not. He deems it dishonorable to blow the horn to call the main body of the French forces back to help him fight the Saracens, yet once the French rear guard is massacred, honor dictates that Charlemagne be called to avenge the death of the Peers.
Justice and Injustice (Right and Wrong)
Each action in the epic falls on the side of right or wrong. Because the Christians believe in God, their actions are viewed as essentially right, whereas the non-Christian Saracens cannot be other than wrong. Individuals may present qualities that differ from this mold. For example, Ganelon, though French, acts wrongly toward Charlemagne in betraying Roland. The Babylonian Baligant, though a pagan, is regarded as a valiant and courageous warrior by both sides. Nonetheless, the essential conflict between Muslim and Christian is one of right versus wrong, and the Christians, being on the side of right, are destined to win the battle. Medieval man believed that God would intervene on the side of right. Therefore, in the narrative, God intervenes to help the French defeat Marsile's army, to enable Charlemagne to slay Baligant, and to make it possible for the weak knight Thierry to strike down the giant Pinabel.
The role of the epic is to establish the memory of the origins of the French nation. Charlemagne emerges as father of the French, and the recounting of his battles in the Chanson de Roland writes the earliest history of France. Many of the characters in the text are not historical contemporaries of the crusading Emperor Charlemagne, in whose service Roland fought and died, but, rather, lived at the time that the text was first written down. By using their names in the epic, the author ensures that the memory of their names is admirable, linked with that of the national hero Charlemagne and to the very beginnings of France as a nation. The importance of memory—of how the story of the battle will be recalled and retold— is found within the text. The dying Roland turns the bodies of the French dead to face the retreating Saracen army. He does this to make sure that, since no one survives to tell of the battle, Charlemagne will know that no French man turned and fled. The stories told after death, the memory of the battle, are of utmost importance to the fighters.
Race and Racism
The question of race and racism in the epic is a confused one. While the Saracens are described at times as black as coal and monstrous in appearance, at other times the author lauds the beauty of an individual Saracen warrior, complete with flowing blonde hair. The Saracens fight as well as, and sometimes even better than, the French. The main issue is the religious differences between the two forces. The Saracens are Muslim and the French are Christian. To the epic's author (and, presumably, to its first audience), this difference means that the Saracens are destined to lose, God being on the side of the French.
The question of Ganelon's treason is central to the work. By betraying Roland, Ganelon also betrays his lord, Charlemagne. The final battle between Thierry and Pinabel serves to establish Ganelon's guilt, making him stand in French culture as an archetypal traitor.